Sunday, February 27, 2011

Homemade Caramel Corn

Ah, the magic of Blogger. It allows you to write posts in advance and schedule them to post later, all by themselves. That's mighty convenient for this weekend, since neither Becky nor I are anywhere near a computer. Beck's off leading 25 college students on a service project, which includes driving a 15-passenger van. I repeat: My tiny little sister is driving a 15-passenger van. Oh how I wish I was a fly on that windshield!

Me? I'm taking my much needed annual retreat, where I get to chill with these guys:

It's all about quality at this retreat. Quality reflection time. Quality scenery. Twenty other quality young people. Wacky priests who know a high quality wine when they see one. And quality homemade caramel corn.

(Does anyone else think that "quality" is a funny word now that they've said it so many times?!)

I always try to make this caramel corn before going on retreat, because it's great for munching between meals, and as anyone who's ever been on a retreat knows, the one thing you do more than any other is eat. One batch of caramel corn fills up three large tupperware containers. That's one container of caramel corn per day of retreat, if we ration it well. Which we usually don't.  :-)

I post this recipe today also because I know many of you will make your own retreats this evening - retreats to the couch, that is, in honor of that golden dude, Oscar. What better way to celebrate this year's grandest films than with popcorn, all fancied up?

For those of you who've never popped popcorn on the stove, it's way easier than it sounds. Same goes for making caramel. If you can measure sugar and water into a pot and exercise a little patience, you're golden (and we may start calling you Oscar).

Whether you're chillin' with 25 college students, Bambi & friends, or Oscar this weekend, consider making this caramel corn. It's quality stuff.

- Katie

Homemade Caramel Corn

Adapted from via Joy the Baker
Makes about 6 cups

For the popcorn
1/2 cup unpopped popcorn
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 cup roasted nuts (any variety you like)

For the caramel

1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon sea salt (or other salt to taste)
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water

Make popcorn

1. Place oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add one kernel of corn and cover pan. When the single kernel pops, add unpopped popcorn and cover. Use pot holders to lightly shake the pan as the corn pops.

2. When the popping stops, turn of the heat, remove the pot from the burner and shake the popcorn into two large bowls (or one giant bowl). Sprinkle with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sea salt. Add nuts to bowls and set popped popcorn aside.

Make caramel

****Make sure you have a bowl of ice water or a cold water faucet very nearby in case you get any hot sugar on your body.***

3. Measure out butter and vanilla extract and set aside. Have salt ready near the popcorn, as well as a greased spatula or two.  Line a baking sheet with foil or a silpat, or simply cover a large, flat surface with foil or parchment.

4.  Measure sugar into a medium to large saucepan.  Pour water into pan, pouring down sides of pan, not directly on top of sugar.  Mark an X with your finger through the sugar and water.

5. Place saucepan over medium-high heat and let cook. Every three to four minutes, pick up pan and swirl (don't stir), Toffee Almond Crunch style. Sugar and water will begin to bubble and caramelize. You are looking for an amber color, which should take 20-30 minutes.

6. When you get an amber caramel color, remove sugar from heat, quickly add butter and vanilla extract. Mixture will bubble up. Swirl pan a few times until butter melts.

7.  Working quickly and carefully, pour hot caramel mixture over popcorn and stir with greased spatula to coat popcorn. Be especially careful of hot sugar at this stage. Carefully pour popcorn out onto parchment or foil. Break up large clumps with spatula.  Sprinkle with salt to taste.  Let come to room temperature.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sin Bars

Almost eight years ago, Becky and I spent a semester studying abroad with the Casa de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador, Central America, where we were introduced to these absolutely sinful cookies.

You may be thinking at this moment that these cookies are therefore Salvadoran.

Not so.

See, we were not introduced to these cookies at a panaderĂ­a or anywhere else in la comunidad, but rather at the home of our program director T when she hosted once-a-week Spirituality Nights.

For me, these weekly gatherings were a lifeline throughout the semester, for a few reasons: 1) We were encouraged to speak English rather than Spanish, 2) I needed the personal and small group reflection time to process the intense experiences I was going through, and 3) T always made baked goods.

I'm telling you - the baked goods were at least as big a draw at those Spirituality Nights as the whole God/faith thing, if not bigger.

So when the Casa program recently distributed a cookbook with some favorite program recipes, Becky and I literally squealed, then drooled, when we saw this recipe in there.

Me gustan oatmeal cookies.

Me gusta fudge.

Me definitely gusta the combination of the two.

Which makes me wonder, why, oh why, did I not ask T for this recipe sometime in the last eight years?

These are oatmeal cookie bars with a layer of oooey, gooey fudge in the middle, and are every bit as indulgent as their name implies.  They are super easy to make, too.

T- thanks for all the support and comfort you offered all those years ago, especially the kind of support made from sugar, butter, oatmeal, and chocolate.

Readers - who will you indulge with these?

Happy Sunday,

Sin/Pecado Bars
Adapted from T's recipe

2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 cups oatmeal (I used a combination of quick oats and original oats since that's what I had on hand)
2 cups (1 bag) chocolate chips
1 10 oz can sweetened condensed milk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a jelly roll pan (10 x 15 inches) with parchment or foil.  Mix flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl and set aside.

2. In large bowl, cream butter and sugar using an electric mixer until light and fluffy.  Add eggs and vanilla and mix until blended.

3. Add flour mixture in two batches, blending until incorporated.  Stir or blend in oats.

4. Press three quarters of mixture into bottom of pan (I found an offset spatula useful here).

5. In microwave, heat chocolate chips and sweetened condensed milk in 30 second intervals, stirring until chocolate chips are melted.  Spread chocolate mixture over cookie dough.

6. Drop mounds of remaining cookie dough over chocolate.

7.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until top is golden brown.  Let cool on wire rack.

8.  When bars are cool, lift entire pan of bars onto cutting board using parchment or foil.  Cut into bars. (You may find it helpful to refrigerate bars before cutting them.  It's not necessary, but makes for a cleaner cut.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chex Muddy Buddies

Behold, my friends, the most divine of sweet treats: Muddy Buddies!

I think I've died and gone to heaven.

This tasty delight embodies the holy trinity of baking: peanut butter, chocolate, and butter. What could go wrong with a combination like that?


Except maybe eating myself into a sugar-induced coma.

That's why having a buddy around (pun intended), to share these with is essential.

Three random memories involving Muddy Buddies and other buddies:
  1. I was first introduced to Muddy Buddies by classmate S. in 5th grade (she called them "Puppy Chow"). S made a batch in the student multipurpose room in front of the whole class, describing each step as she went along, for the assigned "demonstration" project. I was thoroughly impressed with my 10-year old, destined-for-stardom-as-a-cooking-show-host classmate, and in love with the sweeter-than-sweet Puppy Chow.
  2. During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I had my first taste of adolescent independence when neighbor S. suggested we make Muddy Buddies, then convinced Mama B that we could walk the half mile to the grocery store to buy the ingredients all by ourselves. Oh, how I loved you in that moment, neighbor S! (I loved you, too, Muddy Buddies.)
  3. When our dance group participated in Relay for Life in high school to raise money for cancer research, Katie and I made a batch of Muddy Buddies to bring as a snack. Two types of buddies kept us going through the all-night walk: the muddy kind, and the BFF kind.
    The Chex people at General Mills know how to create a product that's good for business. Muddy Buddies are a cinch to make and deliciously addicting. Self-control be darned, I can't stop myself from eating these unless a buddy stronger than myself is around to take them away.

    The recipe on the back of the cereal box should come with a warning: "Seriously addicting sweet treat. Strict adherence to the 'buddy system' should be maintained while making and eating Chex Muddy Buddies."

    Anybody want to be my buddy? Please? Help me!!!


    Chex Muddy Buddies
    Recipe adapted from back of Corn Chex cereal box

    9 cups Rice or Corn Chex
    1 cup chocolate chips
    1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
    1/4 cup butter or margarine
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    2 cups powdered sugar
    1. In large bowl, measure cereal. Set aside.
    2. In 1-quart microwavable bowl, heat chocolate chips, peanut butter, and butter uncovered on High for 1 minute. Stir.
    3. Microwave for about 30 seconds more, until mixture can be stirred smooth.
    4. Stir in vanilla.
    5. Pour mixture over cereal. Stir with large spoon or spatula until cereal is evenly coated.
    6. Pour 1 cup powdered sugar into 1-gallon ziploc bag. Pour in half of cereal. Seal and shake until cereal is evenly coated. Spread on waxed paper to cool. Repeat with remaining powdered sugar and cereal. Store in airtight container in refrigerator or freezer. 

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    "Open Your Heart" Linzer Cookies

    I was nine years old the first time I had my heart broken.

    All through third grade, Matt was my best friend. We played keep away at recess and raced each other on the blacktop while our moms chatted after school. I'm not sure I ever called Matt my "best friend", but he was special to me, and I was happy.

    Then fourth grade happened and suddenly it wasn't cool to be friends with a boy anymore. It wasn't like Matt and I had a specific conversation in which we decided we wouldn't toss the ball around at recess. Things were just suddenly and quietly different. And even though we sat next to each other in class, I knew I'd never be close to Matt in the same way again - that this change was just part of growing up - and my heart broke a little.

    I call these cookies "Open Your Heart" Linzer Cookies because they remind me of a song by that name that I learned around that time - a song that just happened to be written by Matt's mother, who was the chorus teacher at school.

    It's a song Becky and I still sing with each other on random car rides, not only because we not-so-secretly love singing children's songs, but because the song's message is a good one: Even if you're afraid, you've got to open your heart and trust that someone out there will love you for who you are, because you're wonderful.

    I've had my heart broken a couple times since fourth grade. While these cookies look fancy, I can surely say that making "Open Your Heart" cookies is way easier than opening your heart again after it's been through the ringer. If you can make sugar cookie cutouts, you can make these linzer cookies.

    Valentine's Day is coming up. If you've had your heart broken recently, perhaps making these cookies will remind you how sweet it can be to open it back up again. And if your heart is already taken, what better way to celebrate than with buttery, chocolate-y, raspberry-y goodness?

    To open hearts,

    "Open Your Heart" Linzer Cookies 
    adapted from BakedPerfection
    Makes approximately 16 sandwich cookies and 16 small heart cutouts

    For cookies
    2 1/3 cups flour 
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 cup sugar
    3/4 cup softened butter 
    2 eggs 
    1/2 teaspoon almond extract

    For filling
    1 cup chocolate chips
    1/3 cup raspberry jam, room temperature
    powdered sugar for sprinkling

    1. Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and almond extract and mix until creamy.

    2. Add dry ingredients slowly and mix until combined. Dough will be slightly sticky. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic, and chill until firm (at least 45 minutes, or overnight).

    3. When ready to bake cookies, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment.  Remove one portion of dough from fridge and roll on a floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. It's okay to be generous with flour. Cut rounds with a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter and place on cookie sheet.  Place cookie sheet in freezer. (Placing cookie sheet in freezer helps cookies maintain their shape when baked.)

    Note: When I make sugar cookies, I almost never use the "roll on a floured surface" method - I prefer to roll the dough between two sheets of parchment. But that DID NOT work in this case. I recommend sticking with the flour.

    4. While first cookie sheet is chilling, cut out second sheet of cookies, this time cutting centers out with a heart shaped cookie cutter.  Take first baking sheet from freezer; put second one in freezer. Place first sheet in oven and bake for 10-12 minutes or until edges of cookies just start to brown and middles look set. Those with the heart cutouts may not need to bake as long as the rounds.

    5. Let cookies cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Continue the cycle of cutting out cookies and rotating sheets through the freezer until all dough has been used (you can re-roll the scraps), storing dough in the freezer between batches.

    6.  When cookies are completely cool, melt 1 cup chocolate chips in 30 second intervals in microwave.  Stir raspberry jam so it's easily spreadable. Spread teaspoon chocolate on flat side of cookie round to within 1/8 inch of cookie sides, top with teaspoon raspberry jam. Top with cutout cookie (flat side down).

    7.  To garnish, sprinkle with powdered sugar. We used a small heart cookie as a stencil to make sure we didn't get sugar on the jam. Let cookies sit for one day before serving to allow jam to soak into cookies.